An unexpected hub

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 19 Jul 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said turns to the Baltics.


Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, would not have appeared on the global media map had it not been for the rotation system by which NATO members host their summits.

The lot happened to fall on Vilnius this time round, but this is more than coincidence.

Strategically speaking, Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, sit right next to Russia at a time when the war in Ukraine rages on.

This geopolitical reality seems to refute the Russian claim that it launched the war because of NATO’s plans to expand into Ukraine, bringing its forces right up to Russia’s borders.

The two Baltic states entered NATO quite early on after they were freed of Soviet control. Russia was disturbed by their accession at the time, but it did not invade them.

There were other reasons behind the invasion of Ukraine. They had to do with its historical connection with Tsarist Russia and its special place in the Soviet state, all of which combined to generate a weave of demographic and cultural bonds. 

Some countries and cities have historical significance because they witness critical meetings against a backdrop of international life and death confrontations.

Malta and Yalta decided the fate of the world after World War II.

In the first, US president Franklin D Roosevelt met with British prime minister Winston Churchill at the end of January 1945, and in the second these two leaders met with Joseph Stalin. Yalta just so happens to be situated in the Crimea, a focal point of the current war. Will Vilnius acquire historical prestige due to the summit meetings?

Much of what is happening in Ukraine is shrouded in the “fog of war.” The term has little to do with the dust raised by storming tanks and armoured vehicles, or the intensive use of smoke bombs to conceal troop movements.

Rather, it has to do with incomplete or contradictory intelligence leading to lack of clarity on what is actually transpiring on the ground, the inability to discern the strategic from the tactical (or to see the forest for the trees), and confusion as to what should be done now or is better be left for later.

The war in Ukraine is no exception.

Miscalculations have clearly been made regarding the concrete results of the military operations and the political actions behind them. On the other hand, Western sanctions against Moscow had repercussions that extended far beyond their intent, causing worldwide crises in energy, food, supply chains as well as inflation in global economic havoc.

At this moment in the war, new and urgent issues have forced themselves on countries’ agendas and strategic concerns. One has been Turkey’s demand for EU membership and access to F-16s and other US weapons in exchange for changing its position on Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.

Another has been Kyiv’s demand for a roadmap for Ukraine’s accession to the military pact. Each of these demands entails specific concerns and complications that could generate a “fog of war,” causing secondary issues to take precedence over what is essential and strategic. 

Turkey’s position on the war is clear. It supports Ukraine, especially since the Crimean Peninsula was part of the Ottoman Empire before it fell to Tsarist Russia. However, Turkey and Russia have developed an array of common interests and concerns, some to do with Syria and others with weapons. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also has something of a special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

On the other hand, Turkey has long complained that Sweden’s policies on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are fundamentally opposed to Turkish policy which has designated the PKK a terrorist organisation.

Sweden believes that the political asylum it grants members of this group is in keeping with the essence of its liberal political outlook on which there can be no compromise.

The gap between the two positions led Turkey to threaten to oppose Sweden’s accession to NATO, which requires the unanimous approval of all member states.

The standoff was ultimately resolved through a major deal: Turkey would approve Sweden’s accession and, in exchange, it would receive a roadmap to EU membership and a number of F-16s. In addition, Sweden and Turkey would have further talks about collaborating on the fight against terrorism. 

The main winner is, of course, NATO. Russia had claimed that it went to war to halt NATO expansion into Ukraine, only for that war to become a reason for NATO to expand into Sweden and Finland, both of which will be important additions to the might of this great military pact. Ukraine’s haste to obtain a seat in NATO or, at least, a clear roadmap to this end, almost threatened to divide the alliance.

Some members held that a positive response to Kyiv’s request would act as a deterrent to Russia but others, such as the US and Germany, countered that this would lead NATO to direct war with Russia, which would be precipitous and court the horrific spectre of a nuclear confrontation. 

If these countries remain committed to supplying Ukraine with arms, some of them may want to keep open the doors to political and diplomatic possibilities for ending the conflict. Granting Kyiv NATO membership would have been a major escalation against Russia and further frustrated prospects for rapprochement with China. Kyiv did not get what it wanted. But it did get more money and weapons.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: